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Ivan the gorilla will return to Tacoma in statue form

VIDEO: Ivan the beloved gorilla

Larry Johnston, who lived with Ivan the gorilla for three years, and B&I owner Ron Irwin talk about Ivan's life. Plans are underway to immortalize Ivan in a larger than life bronze sculpture that will welcome visitors to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquar
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Larry Johnston, who lived with Ivan the gorilla for three years, and B&I owner Ron Irwin talk about Ivan's life. Plans are underway to immortalize Ivan in a larger than life bronze sculpture that will welcome visitors to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquar

Ivan was one of a kind.

His soulful gaze, his laughter after banging on the glass to startle visitors to the B&I Shopping Center and his human-like behavior helped the silverback gorilla carve an iconic place for himself in Tacoma.

Eyes widened when people saw Ivan on the back of a motorcycle. Visitors swarmed to see him in his steel and concrete cage at the B&I. A custody battle in the 1990s was followed internationally after Michael Jackson offered to house the gorilla at Neverland.

Many still went to see him after he was sent to live at Zoo Atlanta with other gorillas. Thousands turned out for his memorial service when he died in 2012.

Now, Ivan is being brought back to life in a new form.

Douglas Granum, a local artist, has been tasked with capturing Ivan’s essence in a larger-than-life bronze statue.

A grass-roots effort called the Beloved Ivan Project has raised about half the money for the $247,354 project, and the statue is expected to be placed outside Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in August.

Ivan’s family was surprised the community remembered the gorilla and is touched at the response to erecting a memorial.

“Him getting a permanent bronze statue, it warms my heart,” said Larry Johnston, who as a teenager shared a home with a young Ivan for three years. “It acknowledges who he was to the people of the Northwest.

“He’s a Northwest icon, and a lot of people loved him.”

FROM THE CONGO TO TACOMA

Ivan arrived in Tacoma in 1964 after he and a female companion were captured in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Irwin family, which owned the circus-themed B&I mall on South Tacoma Way, bought the baby gorillas from an exotic animal broker.

Burma, the female, arrived on time. Ivan was eight weeks late after being misdirected to a Chicago airport where officials didn’t quite know how to care for him.

Although Ivan was extremely sick and underweight, he recovered. Burma died of an unknown illness soon after her arrival.

Ivan went to live with the Johnston family, which owned the pet store at B&I, at their house on South 72nd Street.

He was practically raised as a child.

Ivan arrived in Tacoma in 1964 after he and a female companion were captured in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The gorilla wore diapers, shared a bed with then-13-year-old Johnston and developed a hankering for his mom’s fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes.

Ivan lived with the family until, at 60 pounds, he proved too big and too powerful. He swung from curtains, destroyed furniture and once broke his toe when he leaped from the mantel to the couch.

A 30-foot-long trailer with a sink and television became Ivan’s new home. Eventually, he was moved to a B&I compound painted to look like a jungle and equipped with a small waterfall, climbing area and an outside pen.

Visitors loved watching Ivan, and he enjoyed tormenting them.

“He was like a kid, always watching people. He loved scaring them,” said Ron Irwin, the son of Earl Irwin. “But there was something more. When you looked in his eyes, he was looking back at you. He understood what was going on.”

Ivan the gorilla poses in the doorway separating the two rooms of his cement and steel cage at the B&I Circus Store in Tacoma in September 1973. (Richards Studio Collection.) 
Ivan the gorilla poses in the doorway separating the two rooms of his cement and steel cage at the B&I Circus Store in Tacoma in September 1973. (Richards Studio Collection.)

NEW LIFE IN ATLANTA

Though Ivan was beloved in Tacoma, efforts to “free” him intensified in 1991 after National Geographic featured him in a special on modern gorilla zoo exhibits and used Ivan as the contrast.

More than 8,000 signatures were collected on local and national petitions urging Ron Irwin, by then B&I’s vice president, to give Ivan to a zoo.

The issue grabbed headlines after “Hard Copy” ran a segment on Ivan, and pop singer Michael Jackson offered to take Ivan, which was deemed impractical because he did not have a facility for the gorilla.

In 1993, the B&I was forced into bankruptcy, and a court-ordered reorganization plan recommended Ivan go to a zoo because he was a financial liability.

Point Defiance had no gorillas or plans to build an exhibit. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo agreed to assume responsibility for Ivan, but because they had no room for new gorillas, they gave him to Zoo Atlanta on permanent loan.

The Irwins worried Ivan wouldn’t adapt to living with other gorillas after he’d been raised by humans.

He met with mixed success in Atlanta.

50 Years old Ivan was when he died in 2012. He was among the oldest gorillas in captivity.

Though he bonded with female gorillas, Ivan was more big brother than boyfriend. He still preferred human company and quickly bonded with keeper Jodi Carrigan.

“For some reason, we had an instant bond,” she recalled. “You could tell he wasn’t your typical gorilla. He was unique.”

Ivan continued to make abstract paintings at Zoo Atlanta and marked each piece of work with a fingerprint. He carried burlap bags when it rained and set one down in front of him to step on as he moved around the enclosure.

He became so attached to Gumby and Pokey dolls that he refused to return them to his keepers.

At 50, Ivan died while undergoing a diagnostic exam. In the weeks before his Aug. 20, 2012, death, digestive problems stole his appetite, and arthritis made it hard for him to move.

He was among the oldest gorillas in captivity. The average lifespan of a male gorilla is 32 years.

Much as he did during his time in Tacoma, Ivan the Gorilla spent much of his time people watching in Zoo Atlanta, where he became a crowd favorite. (Courtesy Zoo Atlanta.) 
Much as he did during his time in Tacoma, Ivan the Gorilla spent much of his time people watching in Zoo Atlanta, where he became a crowd favorite. (Courtesy Zoo Atlanta.)

RETURN TO TACOMA

After Ivan’s death, Earl Borgert, whose grandfather started the B&I, traveled with his sister to Atlanta to claim the gorilla’s ashes.

Then he came home and pitched the idea of an Ivan memorial to the Tacoma Metro Parks Board of Commissioners.

The board agreed that if the family found a way to pay for the statue, they could put it near the bottom of the stairs outside Point Defiance Zoo’s admission windows.

Zoo staff members agreed to help write interpretative materials to accompany the statute that would educate the public on the plight of lowland gorillas.

The Irwins interviewed seven local artists and selected Granum, whose work includes a 6 1/2-foot-tall bronze statue, called “The Big Catch,” on display outside the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor.

“When I first started on this project, I thought most gorillas looked the same. That was my naïve thought,” Granum said. “Gorillas are all very individualistic looking. I realized I had to create portraiture.”

Granum and the Irwin family chose a News Tribune photograph of Ivan holding a pink magnolia blossom in his hand at Zoo Atlanta as the model for the statue. They thought it showed the softer side of Ivan, which they preferred over images of gorillas that show them beating on their chests.

Him getting a permanent bronze statue, it warms my heart.

Larry Johnston, Ivan’s childhood friend

The first challenge was creating a 3-D likeness of Ivan. Granum and the family gathered hundreds of photos of Ivan to capture his physical characteristics because the photograph used for the statue captured only one side of Ivan.

It took six months before a full digital portrait emerged.

The digital image then was used to create dozens of acrylic pieces from a 3-D printer that will be welded together and poured with bronze at local foundry Two Ravens.

Those working on the project hope to place some of Ivan’s ashes — currently held in two ceramic urns in Irwin’s basement — in the belly of the statue and seal it up. When the statue is complete, it will stand 6 feet tall.

In the meantime, the Beloved Ivan Project is trying to finish raising the money and is asking people to contribute Ivan memories to its website.

“Ivan really impacted two cities, and we’re going to try and tell Ivan’s story,” Irwin said.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

More online

The Beloved Ivan Project is asking people to share their memories of Ivan at belovedivan.org.

How to help

To donate, visit The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation at gtcf.org or link there from the Beloved Ivan Project at belovedivan.org.

Donors who give more than $1,000 will be able to attend the sculpture unveiling at artist Douglas Granum’s studio before the statue is dedicated at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Hominid happy headlines

Tacoma icon Ivan the gorilla has been the subject of dozens of stories in The News Tribune over the years. Often times, the beloved ape inspired a few primitive puns in our headlines. Here are a some of the best — or perhaps worst:

  • Protest to seek gorilla’s release — Animal advocates say ‘bananas’ to B&I cage (March 16, 1991)
  • Gorilla warfare — Ivan remains a captive of bad blood between trustee and zoo (May 30, 1994)
  • Agreement calls for Ivan the gorilla to spend old age in southern comfort (June 9, 1994)
  • Party animal! 200 show up at B&I to wish Ivan the gorilla safe trip, happy life (Oct. 2, 1994)
  • Zoo keepers think Ivan will soon be king of his jungle (Oct. 9, 1994)
  • Swinging single Ivan gets into the big-city lifestyle (Jan. 19, 1995)
  • Monkey see, monkey woo – It’s ‘good golly, Miss Molly’ as Ivan revels in first date (Jan. 21, 1995; after Ivan is introduced to a female gorilla named Molly)
  • Ivan goes a-courtin’ — It’s howdy-duty time for ape and his gal (Feb. 14, 1995; This forced pun refers to Ivan being put in what zookeepers called a “howdy cage” with a female in hopes he would mate)
  • First he’ll date a little — As far as sex is concerned, Ivan’s unlikely to go ape (March 19, 1995)
  • For first time in 27 years, Ivan will have gorillas in his midst (June 26, 1995)
  • A little monkey business — Ivan to go on display ahead of schedule (June 30, 1995)
  • Ivan lying down on the job (May 10, 1996)

Source: The News Tribune archive

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